Tunneling, a short story

Down there, below the street, as the sun sets today. Something buried deep is going to sleep, and something different is waking. It is an ageless balance which the engineers for the new subway tunnel have disturbed. Such things should stay asleep, as Philip Rattlekin, subway line 4, will soon discover in the Twilight Zone.

[Heads up, some adult language in this one…]

Philip Rattlekin sat in a dirty puddle of mud, struggling to catch his breath while making as little noise as possible. His body felt numb, not because of the frigid temperature of the water, but because he was the only one still alive.

It had come from nowhere and everywhere and killed everyone.

And now it was coming for him.

2nd_ave_subway_feb2013_16“You have to stop the drilling!”

How many times had Philip heard this in the past two weeks? Usually, his assistant ran interference when the nuts fell off the tree, but he’d just been sent on an errand to deliver some new tunnel schematics to the city planner’s office, and the nuts had managed to corner Philip as he was heading out to get to Evan’s soccer match.

There was at least a dozen this time. More than twice as many kooks as last week. Enough that things could get messy if they got too pushy. Philip was a big guy, a head taller than the tallest kook and firmly packed with muscle that showed he was far from a pencil pushing engineer, but he’d learned in Iraq how quick things could go south and he wasn’t going to scuffle with a mob.

He turned to the main kook – a middle aged man with frizzy Einstein hair and a look nuttier than Doc Brown. “Look, we told you guys last week. We’re on a tight schedule, millions of dollars have been poured into this project, and there’s no way it’s stopping. Why don’t you get back to your university and let us do our job.”

“You don’t understand!” Doc Brown shrieked, pulling out a tablet from a leather bag he wore around his neck. “Our studies have shown that you are causing irreparable harm to the water table, and this will impact our entire city’s water supply!” He stuck the tablet in Philip’s face to show him a bunch of meaningless graphs and numbers.

Philip snorted. Last time they claimed the subway project was disturbing the habitat of some mole or groundhog or something. Now it was the water table. The city had done their own studies, and the water table was in no danger from the extension of line four. Why would he help wreck his own city’s water supply? It made no sense, and he said so.

“Yes, well, be that as it may, you must stop the drilling,” the old kook stammered, with a surprising amount of conviction.

Philip was done.

“If you got a problem with what we’re doing, take it up with the city planner. This is her ballgame.” He stepped up and stared down at the kook, just inches away. The guy smelled like garlic. “Now get out of my way.”

Doc Brown stammered incoherently but wisely stepped aside, letting Philip through so that he could get to his truck. As he pulled himself into the cab, he could hear Doc Brown mumbling something about the water table and disaster and the end of the world.

Stupid hippy environmentalist nutjobs, Philip thought as he pressed the ignition and started up his F-150. Evan was starting today and he didn’t want to be late.

Philip inhaled for four seconds and exhaled for another four while reciting the mantra he’d been taught in Basic. This too shall pass… this too shall pass… this too shall pass… It had saved his life in that back alley in Mosul, maybe it would save his life now.

Feeling his heart rate lower and his breathing come under his control, Philip opened his eyes to take stock of his situation. He still sat in a puddle of dirty tunnel water where he’d stumbled just a few moments before. Work lights flickered in the tunnel several meters away, but all was quiet. No sounds of pursuit.

No sounds of that… whatever it had been. All teeth and tentacles and blood…

Maybe this is just a bad dream, he considered, shaking his head. I’m going to wake up any minute now and have to go and pee.

Just like Evan and his bad dreams. The kid would wake him up in the middle of the night, shrieking in the darkness and claiming to have seen monsters. He’d take him to pee and the then he’d be off to sleep again in no time. Night terrors, the doctor said. Leftovers from daddy’s deployment.

So much blood…

Sitting still gets soldiers killed, Philip thought, another life-saving mantra coming back to him. He raised himself out of the puddle and leaned against the tunnel wall. Everything was darkness where he’d come from.

He took a step towards the flickering lights and nearly fell down again as a sharp pain hit his right foot. Damn it, he grunted as he went down on his left knee, his hand going to his right ankle. He froze as his grunt echoed down the tunnel.

Nothing.

Whatever it was, it apparently didn’t have a keen sense of hearing.

Or it wasn’t hungry any more.

Then he heard the growl.

Damn, he thought. The kooks were right.

“Shutting us down? How the hell are they shutting us down?”

Philip stood at the opening to the tunnel where he could get cell reception, and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. They’d just broken through a major wall of bedrock, and there was more than enough work to do without this kind of nonsense.

“The mayor got wind of the kook’s concerns and ordered the halt,” his assistant said on the other end. “They tweeted out some infographics about the dangers of the project – I’ll send you the screenshots. Somehow, they managed to get retweeted by Neil DeGrass Tyson or The Science Guy or someone, and now it’s gone political.”

“Politics,” Philip muttered. Every curse word he’d ever learned – before the service and during – came to mind, and it was all he could do to not kill the messenger. “Alright Lou, get back over here and we’ll figure out what we’re gonna do. Meanwhile, I’ve got to go pull out the crew and get the machinery tied down. Situation normal.”

“All fucked up.” Lou finished. “You want I should bring you a coffee?”

“Make it Irish and we’ll be moving in the right direction,” Philip chuckled, glad for some levity. “Just get back here so we can clean up this mess.”

His phone buzzed as the screenshots showed up, and so he said goodbye to Lou and stared at the images. The kooks claimed that the tunneling disturbed subterranean life and might endanger species that humanity was yet to encounter. The images were flashy and sensational and absolute bullshit.

Philip found a few extra curse words that he had been saving for a special occasion and muttered them as he headed back down into the tunnel.

It happened in flashes, like a firefight.

He’s giving orders to withdraw when they first hear the growl coming from the tunnel that they’d just finish boring.

They swing over the spotlights.

A ripple of green skin flashes and vanishes in the shadows.

The first scream as Juan, who operates the excavator, is snatched by… something… and yanked into the darkness.

Building hysteria as one by one his workers vanish. The green skin… crashing lights… wrapping tentacles… a mouth as big as a horse… sharp teeth… more screams… and he runs.

And he runs.

Like he did in Mosul, when the firefight had grown too intense, and everything had gone to hell, and he had no choice because he had a kid and a wife, and he wasn’t losing everything for this shithole…

And then… darkness.

Our writing prompt this week was a story based on a Twilight-Zone-ish setup, written by one of the members of the writing group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hope

My writing group’s prompt this time was “Hope”. I wrote a dialogue.

download.jpg[Ex-husband and wife sit at a Starbucks, each with a cup of joe in front of them]

Him: You say that too much.

Her: Say what?

Him: Hope. “I hope you get the job.” “I hope everything turns out alright.” Hope, hope, hope. It’s irritating.

Her: [disbelieving] Having a hopeful attitude is irritating?

Him: No, you’re right. It’s not irritating.

Her: Thank you.

Him: It’s infuriating.

Her: What?

Him: Seriously, the more I think about it, the angrier I get! It’s just so banal! Like when people say they’re sending their prayers and thoughts after a tragedy. What does that even mean?

Her: It means that people care!

Him: Then say you care or don’t say anything! Just don’t waste my time with useless hopes.

Her: Now wait a minute!

Him: Seriously, how does your hoping I’ll get the job help me get the job? It doesn’t! And guess what, if things do turn out alright, it won’t be because you hoped they would, it will be because I prepared and planned and worked my ass off, and things just happened to go my way. It has nothing to do with hope.

Her: It has everything to do with hope.

Him: Give me a break. Hope didn’t help you keep from getting depressed after Donnie was born! It didn’t help your mom with her Alzheimer’s or Lacey with her cancer!

Her: [Standing] No, you give me a break. I didn’t survive depression because of preparation! Planning didn’t give me the strength to take care of mom! Working my ass off certainly didn’t get me through Lacey’s cancer! It was hope. It was all hope. I hoped that there would be light at the end of the tunnel, and that hope got me through the tunnel.

Him: [shrugs and looks away]

Her: I thought it got you through, too. I hope that it does.

[She exits, leaving him looking at his coffee, which has now grown cold.]

A Twist of Lime

A Twist of Lime
by Nate Fleming

I sat, resigned, and stared ahead
My teacher stood beside.
“How can you be so dense?” he said.
I had no place to hide.
“My instructions couldn’t be more clear
if you’d simply take the time.
It plainly says, if you’ll look here,
to add a what of lime?”

“A twist,” I said. “A twist, a twist,
you add a twist of lime.”

For weeks, he’d done this, pushing me
to see if I would break.
But I had chosen here to be!
This class, that I would take!
My dream had been to make mixed drinks
while I was in my prime.
But all I heard when I would think
was “Add a twist of lime!”

“A twist!” He’d shriek. “A twist, a twist,
you add a twist of lime!”

Something twisted, something broke,
something in my brain.
His neck I then began to choke
and nobody complained.
But as they pulled me off of him
they asked me ‘bout my crime.
Why’d I do it? Was it a whim?
“I added a twist of lime.”

“A twist!” I laughed. “A twist, a twist,
I added a twist of lime!”


My writing group is the only thing keeping me writing right now. Our prompt for last night was “twist” and it had to be a poem. I am no poet, so this was a challenge for me. If you want to write, and you aren’t in a community of writers, get in one as soon as you can!  

Truth

I’d been waiting for that moment for years, dreamed about it, saw how it would happen from beginning to end. I’d waited, patiently, watching him from a distance when he didn’t know that I was there.

It was my only purpose in life, my penance, to watch him and wait. Wait for the right time to tell him his place in things. At least three times I was tempted to be the one to initiate contact, but something would always stop me. At the time, I found it incredibly frustrating, and I would lock myself in my hovel and try to find peace about my waylaid plans. Each time, I would come out understanding that what had happened had been right, because things would have undoubtedly gone wrong if I had overstepped my bounds yet again. That’s the way the universe operates.

Or at least so I was taught.

Then, the opportunity was given to me. I almost told him everything, but I didn’t. He came to me, understand. I didn’t go looking for him, he came looking for me. After years of watching and waiting, he came to me. And I would tell anyone that asked that if there were signs to be sought, they were all there: I had him alone – well, mostly alone. Undistracted. None of his loud friends or busybody relatives bustling about to stop me.

It was perfect. It was time.

He even asked me what had happened. He actually asked me. The conversation had been going exactly as I imagined it would up to that point, and yet when he asked me, the words I had been practicing since I first came to this godforsaken place froze on my lips. It came on me suddenly – a feeling that I still mustn’t tell him. It still wasn’t time, even though everything seemed to be pushing me towards following my original plan.

I saw what would happen if he knew the truth right now. He sat before me, a boy filled with a beautiful optimism and purity, and those qualities would serve him well in life, but they would be his undoing if he knew the truth now. His goodness would make him obsess over the truth, he would go mad thinking that he could somehow make things right. He would run to him – and he wouldn’t be ready. And then all of his admirable qualities would be twisted and manipulated and turned into a dark abomination.

I saw him turn, right in front of me, in my home.  And he whispered that if this happened to him, it would once again be because of my impatience. As I was responsible for his father, I would be responsible for him.

And then I heard words that I had never rehearsed spill from my mouth, and I felt a guiltless guilt as I saw my lie spill over him. I knew that it was the right thing to do, even as I knew how deep his goodness ran, and how deeply he would feel betrayed when he found out the truth.

But he will understand, and he will forgive. That’s the man this boy will grow to be.

And when he’s old enough, he will be ready.

But not today.

“A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father…”

Wandering Stars

Bats on an asteroid? Whose idea was that?

I have to think a bunch of idiot dwarves were sitting around in their mines back on the dwarf world, discussing the things they’d miss most when they set out into space on their mission to strip asteroids of firegems. For some reason, they all agreed on little leather-winged flying rats.

Probably to help with homesickness out here in the belt.

That’s great for them, but for the rest of us, the bats aren’t so nice to have around. They swoop out of nowhere, they bite, and will even try to carry away small animals. They especially like to dive bomb me when I sit at the top of the arch of D’nash, like I’m doing now. So I stay low.

Other than the risk of bat-bite, the top of the arch is perfect for me. The dwarves refuse to look at it, which has something to do with their religion, so it lowers the odds that I’ll be spotted. My sister Meg told me that we should try to understand the dwarves to help us get along better with them, but I just don’t get it. Why bother having a religion if that religion doesn’t allow you to look at the monuments you build because of that religion?

Yeah, they brought their bats to the asteroid, they brought their religion, and they brought me and Meg and a whole bunch of other human slaves. They’re wonderful creatures, dwarves.

But as little as they pay attention to their religion, I figure that following their beliefs is still more important than a scrawny twelve year old human girl, so they don’t know or don’t care that I sit up here. Which is fine by me. If they did care, then I couldn’t get away with what I’m doing now.

I sit up as I see a flash of pink in the crowd below. What I’ve been waiting for – an orc administrator, wearing his standard pink jacket, pushing his self-important way through the crowded square below, totally unaware that he’d just been pegged to donate to the Human World Orphan’s Fund.

I just love orcs. Their skin has a delightful greenish color that reminds me of my vomit after I’ve eaten too much of Meg’s langua bean soup. Their eyes are as mesmerizingly black as the deepest, darkest, coldest mine, a color which – incidentally – matches the color of their black souls, if they have souls, which I don’t think that they do.

I mean, what’s not to love? They invaded my homeworld, destroying everything in the process, killed my parents, and then dumped Meg and me off as slaves for their stubby longbearded allies to take to the stars. I love them so much that it’s my pleasure to do what I can to inconvenience them whenever I get the chance. It’s just the kind of girl that I am.

Meg says I have a real problem with sarcasm.

If she only knew.

Looking back at the orc, this one is moving fast. Probably late for an important orc meeting, or maybe just late for dinner. Either way, it means I’ll have to move faster.

First, though, I scan the crowd until I see Turi, sitting obediently by a garbage receptacle, looking up at me, waiting for my signal.

He’s such a good dog. Slaves aren’t supposed to have pets, but I dare anyone to try and separate us. Three years ago I was walking past this goblin café on an errand for my owner when I heard this panicked yelping from around back. Meg says I’ve always been more curious than is healthy, but in this case, it saved Turi’s life, because I ran around back and found a horde of bats trying to carry this little brown fur ball off for dinner. He was only a puppy, but that day he became my puppy, and we’ve been inseparable ever since. We have a special connection, which makes what I’m trying to do here today that much easier.

I flick my hand and whisper, “go, boy!” and he immediately bursts into the crowd as if powered by dragonfire.

And that means I have to get down quick.

Fortunately, I’ve done this dozens of times. It’s just a matter of sliding down the arch while avoiding the razor sharp blades that stick out at random spots. They apparently symbolize the way dwarves are supposed to cut themselves in obedience to their gods or something.

What a weird religion.

But, as I’ve said, I’ve done this before, and so sliding down while avoiding the blades is not as hard as it sounds.

But avoiding the gaggle of dwarf nuns at the bottom, that’s another issue.

Of course it would be the only members of the bizarre religion who are permitted to look at the arch as they pray. Only now, they’re not looking at the arch. They’re looking at this scrawny human girl sliding down the arch towards them.

Crap.

When I hit the ground, I expect the nuns to start doing the same to me, and I’m prepared to take the beating long enough to satisfy their anger and then scurry away. But hit with a flash of inspiration, I grab my left ear, bow, and say, “V’rak D’nash!” (which means “Praise D’nash” in dwarvish). I hold my breath and tense, prepared to feel their little rock-hard fists pounding me from all sides. But when that doesn’t happen, I risk a glance. To my shock, the nuns are smiling at me! In unison, they grab their own right ears, bow, and say “P’nash D’nash!” (“May D’nash be praised”), then turn and walk away, giggling.

Maybe Meg was right after all?

Not wasting any more time on my near beat-down, I dive into the crowd, pushing my way through the crowds of dwarf miners, orc pilots, and some multi-limbed creatures that I don’t recognize until I see the puke green head and bright pink administrator jacket just ahead.

But before I can make my move, my way is blocked. I’m about to use some of the dwarf words that Meg never lets me use when I realize that it’s not a dwarf blocking me. It’s a man. A slave, heading for the mines. He’s wearing the simple brown work bibs that mine slaves are provided, a rough fabricated material that is just enough to provide protection, but nothing you would ever choose to wear. He’s linked to six or seven other men with energy beams that prevents them from running away (although there’s nowhere to run on a mining colony). And he looks at me with blank eyes, the result of spending most of his time in the darkness of the mines. For a moment, his eyes seem to clear.

“Anna?”

Then he and the others are pushed on by their dwarf minders, who don’t bother with me. After all, I’m wearing the crest of my owner Jazrah on my tunic. I’m obviously on important business. I breathe a prayer of thanks to D’nash that my owner works in shipping and not mining, or else Meg and I might be a part of that chain gang. But I can’t afford to be distracted, and so I hop past the last dwarf and run up ahead.

I’m about to give Turi the signal when I remember the cams. Dammit, I forgot the cams, and the cams capture everything in public places like this. Stupid bats distracted me. I now have a choice to make: either call the whole thing off and try again later, or try one of Meg’s spells. I’m not supposed to use them in public, but I do it all the time and nobody’s ever been any wiser for it. What Meg doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

I do it quickly, reciting the magic words my sister taught me and making a circular gesture with my left hand. If the spell works (and it usually does), the cams should be on a loop for the next few minutes. It’s not the best way to deal with them, but it’s the only choice I have now.

Knowing that Turi is ready (he’s such a good dog), I take a deep breath and whisper “Go boy”, and the dog is off like a flash, jumping in front of the administrator so quickly that the only thing he can do is go down in a flurry of arms and legs, the stack of sims he’s carrying for his work exploding from him like a wall cracker during the Remembrance Day celebrations.

It’s a perfect move.

I leap out to play my part, grabbing Turi by the back of his neck. “Bad dog!” I scold, sticking my finger in his face. Turi’s ears go back and he lowers his head, whining. Good boy, I think as I turn to the orc. “I’m so sorry,” I say, lowering my head like a good slave.

It’s all I can do not to laugh at the sight of the orc trying to stand and pick up the slips he’d dropped at the same time.

“Let me help you,” I start, scooping up handfuls of slips and shoving them at the orc in what appears to be a random and chaotic movement, but is in fact a move that I’ve practiced hundreds of times.

The administrator, as I expected, is not very interested in my help. The blue veins stand out in his green head, a sign of intense anger in an orc. It occurs to me that if this was one of the larger and angrier orcs – a pilot or a warrior – he would have twisted my head off by now. That’s why I picked an administrator. They get angry, but the nature of their work requires more restraint.

“Just leave it alone!” he shrieks. “Leave me alone!”

This one is surprisingly loud. Loud enough to attract unwanted attention, meaning that the Red Caps – the dwarf constables with their distinctive red caps – would likely be along soon to investigate the fracas. This means that it’s time to make my exit, especially now that the orc’s money bag is now tucked safely in the back of my tunic. So, I raise my hands, dropping the slips I’m still holding, I bow my head, and I back off.

And then, when I’m the required three paces away, I give a short whistle and Turi and I do our best vanishing act into the crowd.

Leaving behind a small victory for enslaved humans everywhere: a much angrier and much poorer orc administrator.

Yay for us.

Young Writer Chronicles: Students Around the World Discover a Love for Writing

I was pleased and honored to be asked to write an article for the National Novel Writing Month about my experiences as an international educator taking students through NaNoWriMo. Here is an excerpt from that article, with the link to the whole article at the bottom of the page.

Young Writer Chronicles: Students Around the World Discover a Love for Writing

by Nate Fleming

tumblr_inline_o6x334JM8u1r0x68m_500I fell into NaNoWriMo backwards, through Script Frenzy, a program sponsored by the nonprofit behind NaNo from 2007 to 2012. In Script Frenzy, a writer would write the first draft of a screenplay over the month of April. At that time, I had aspirations to be a screenwriter, even going so far as to take a screenwriting course in Hollywood over the summer of 2007 to help me down this path.

My biggest obstacle to a screenwriting career was geography. That summer I’d come to Hollywood from my wife’s home country of Kazakhstan, where I was teaching in an international school. Central Asia is not exactly the best place for a writer to live if he wants to break into Hollywood, is it? So, on the advice of a screenwriter friend, I turned to NaNoWriMo. If I couldn’t be in Hollywood to sell my screenplay idea, perhaps I could write a novel, and that novel could sell itself! In 2008, I decided to set aside November to work on making my screenplay into a novel.

downloadAlthough I didn’t finish the novel that year, I enjoyed NaNoWriMo so much that in 2009, I decided to try and see if I could fit NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program into my international school’s curriculum. That year, with the approval of my administration, I piloted taking a valiant class of fifth graders through the month of writing, and it was maddening, exhilarating, insane, and immensely rewarding.

My eyes were opened as I saw students who had previously struggled to write a paragraph effortlessly filling pages and pages of a first draft. It also unlocked writing in other classes across the curriculum, and writing was coming easier for these students in history, science, and literature classes. It was revolutionary! The doors had been opened, and my students suddenly believed that they could write! It was almost magical!

To read the rest of the story, go here.

 

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist • Preview Chapter 2

They made it to the ark, but the danger has not passed.

Someone on board the ark is not what they seem, and Thimblerig discovers that there are plans afoot to steal the Seed of Asarata, the key to life after the flood. Now, to save the seed and the future, he and his company of animals will have to steal it first, right out from under the noses of Noah, the humans, and the wild dogs who protect it.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist

For a preview of chapter 1, read here.

Chapter 2

“C’mon Bunco, get me out of here!”

Soapy, the copper-furred orangutan, held onto the bamboo bars of his cage and watched hopelessly at the pygmy elephant standing outside pulled futilely at the twine tied around the bars with her trunk. The two were founding members of Thimblerig’s company of animals, and two of the other con artists who had made it onboard the ark after encountering the unicorn.

“I’m working on it, Soapy!” The pygmy elephant grunted. “You’re supposed to be the pickpocket. Can’t you do anything?”

“It’s tied too tight!” Soapy slapped the bars and flopped down on the floor of the cage. “This is so wrong! I didn’t do anything!”

A flurry of white feathers flew past the pen, circled above, and landed on the top.

“Morning, all,” Shi Lau said. The white duck, also a member of Thimblerig’s company of animals, moved aside so that a midnight-black raven could land beside him, and he almost tumbled off as the room shifted, a regular occurrence as the enormous ark was being continually tossed around by the massive storm outside like a toy boat in a puddle.

“Morning, Shi Lau,” Big Bunco said, sitting down and wiping her brow with her trunk.  “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Yonah,” Shi Lau answered, turning to the raven. “He came for some figs. Yonah, say hello to the mammals.”

“Hello, mammals,” the raven squawked, waving a wing.

“What’s the word?” Shi Lau asked. “Soapy still complaining?”

“Complaining? I’m standing up for my rights!” Soapy countered. “I don’t deserve this!”

The duck poked his head through the bars and laughed. “Quit your griping, Soapy! You got caught in the bird section and you lost your privileges. Don’t you know actions have consequences?”

“Oh, shut your bill, Shi Lau!” Soapy snapped back at the duck, taking a swipe at the billed face, but the duck yanked his head back out before he could be hit.

“Hey, don’t be angry at me,” Shi Lau said. “Be angry at the doves. They ratted you out to Kid Duffy.”

“Don’t remind me,” Soapy said. “Dirty fink wild dog.”

“As if they didn’t mess things up enough in the forest,” Shi Lau said disgustingly, hopping off the pen and sailing down to the ark floor beside Big Bunco. “Lousy wild dogs.”

Before the flood, the wild dogs had been the undisputed leaders of the forest, but they had been anything but benevolent. Ruling over the other animals with fear and intimidation, they had kept everyone firmly under their paws. When the flood came and washed everything away, everyone had expected that life would be different, but they were still being ruled by Kid Duffy, the only surviving male wild dog.

It seemed like nothing had changed.

“I was just trying to make a trade!” Soapy shot back.

“Yeah, Duffy’s not big on black markets,” Shi Lau answered. “He likes things organized.”

“At least he let you be down here with us,” Big Bunco said cheerfully. “He could have stuck you back up with the rest of the apes.”

“Who would he get to carry me up there? The doves?” Soapy grumbled. “And since when are you such an optimist?”

“What’s wrong with being optimistic?” Big Bunco said. “Things could be a lot worse, you know!”

“How could it be worse?” Soapy asked, slapping the bars right behind Big Bunco’s head. “I’m stuck in a cage!”

“For starters, you could be stuck outside the ark!” Bunco said, standing up and facing the ape. “I don’t remember you being that great a swimmer!”

As if to underline her statement, the storm made the ark shift again, throwing everyone out of balance. Ignoring the sensation, the two friends glared at each other through the bars, the tension was as thick as the heavy rain constantly falling outside.

“So where’s Sheila?” Shi Lau finally asked, referring to the ever-idealistic kangaroo who was usually around. “I’m surprised she’s not here making you feel even worse.”

“Oh she was here, alright,” Soapy said. He flopped back down again, an orange-fur heap on a bed of yellow straw. “She told me not to be upset, but to…”

“Trust the unicorn!” they all said at once.

“Tabitha and Mullins took her to check on Elbridge,” Big Bunco said, returning her attention to the stubborn knot of twine that kept Soapy encaged. “But I think they were just trying to give Soapy some relief.”

“At least somebody cares…” Soapy complained.

“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” a familiar voice said, and they all turned to see Thimblerig step out of a shadowy recess in the wall.

“Ha, ha.” Soapy replied, brightening up. “You better have something to make me feel better.”

“Yeah, where are the figs?” Shi Lau asked, flapping down to the floor beside Thimblerig, trying to poke his bill into the pouch slung over Thimblerig’s shoulder. “We’re getting tired of the grub they keep giving us up in the aviary.” The duck pulled back suddenly, an unpleasant, wrinkled look on his face. “What’s that smell!”

“It’s nothing!” Thimblerig said, pushing the duck away. He plopped down, his back against Soapy’s cage, pulled the empty bag over his head, and tossed it to the floor. “I struck out.”

“Again?” Shi Lau squawked. “I thought you said you could take those reptiles for a bagful!”

“I could, and I still can,” Thimblerig muttered, in no mood to be grilled on his failed con.

“If the figs on Asarata were coulda’s, then all the forest would go hungry,” Shi Lau replied, shaking his head and looking back up at the raven. “Sorry, Yonah. No figs.”

“No worries,” The raven answered, obviously disappointed, but also relieved that he didn’t have to stick around. “I’m going to take off. Don’t want to end up in a cage! See you later, mammals!”

Thimblerig watched the raven flap away, and then turned to the duck.

“Bringing strangers down here for figs? Seriously?” he asked.

“What?” Shi Lau said. “He’s a good egg!”

Everyone groaned, and Thimblerig sat back against the cage, pulled a piece of straw from the floor and started sucking on it.

Over the course of their journey to the ark, the duck had been a constant thorn in Thimblerig’s paw, complaining and doubting him every step of the way. Of course, he’d been right that Thimblerig was a no good con-artist, and the fact that he’d figured him out was probably what bothered Thimblerig the most.

He had been a con. One of the best in the forest, no doubt, and from the start he had intended to take the little company of animals for every fig he could get his paws on, but Thimblerig’s attitude towards them – including the duck – had changed.

The unicorn had seen to that.

“Maybe the raven’s fine, but I think we’re best off just sticking with each other,” Thimblerig said. “Better the wild dog you know then the one that you don’t.”

“Speaking of wild dogs, Thimblerig, can you talk to Kid Duffy? Talk him into springing me?” Soapy’s doleful eyes peered through the bamboo cage. “You were a leader, so maybe he’d listen to you.”

“He’s still a wild dog,” Thimblerig huffed. “He won’t listen to anyone.”

“Except the humans,” Big Bunco said.

At the naming of the humans, everyone grew quiet and nervous, as if by mentioning them one would appear.

The humans.

They walked on two legs, had little fur of their own, and were incapable of communication beyond grunts and making unintelligible sounds. Yet, it seemed that they were the ones who had built the ark, and they were undoubtedly the ones who were in charge.

“Forget the humans, and forget Duffy, we don’t need them,” Thimblerig finally said, standing. “We don’t need anyone.”

“Where you going?” Big Bunco asked as Thimblerig turned to go.

“I have no idea,” Thimblerig said, his voice weary. “So I guess I’ll go lie down.”

The other animals watched with concern as Thimblerig trudged down the big animal-filled room heading towards his own little pen.

Big Bunco found Thimblerig laying on the straw in small pen, staring up at the glowing firegems dotting the rough wooden rafters above. She had to hold onto the wooden slats of the pen with her trunk to keep from being knocked down as the ark rode the massive waves outside, but the groundhog didn’t seem to be bothered it in the least.

“A fig for your thoughts,” she said, sitting down beside him, glad to be lower to the floor where she was less prone to nausea.

“It didn’t bother me, Bunc,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “It hurt my pride a bit, but not really.”

“What didn’t bother you?” she probed gently.

“Blowing the game down in the reptile room,” he said, shifting on his bed of hay. “Can you believe it? I blew a game with an easy mark, and it didn’t bother me.”

“You seemed bothered when you came back up,” she said.

“Yeah, but it wasn’t about that.” Thimblerig sat up, resting his weight on one arm while he looked at his friend. “Ever since what happened out there, nothing’s been the same. My priorities are all out of whack. I’m not the same since before… him.”

Big Bunco nodded. She’d been feeling the same way. Before the flood she’d been content with her comfortable life as a grifter. But her interaction with the believers and her encounter with the unicorn on the road to the ark had her questioning everything. Her priorities, her hopes, her plans – none of those things seemed to matter any more.

“I’m thinking about leaving it all behind,” Thimblerig said, immediately getting Big Bunco’s attention again. He lay back down on the hay and resumed his staring at the ceiling. “The whole racket. I think I’m done.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Done with what?

“Being a con,” he answered. “The whole bit.”

“You’re going straight?” she asked, unable to believe what she was hearing.

“Yeah, I think I am,” he replied, his voice getting stronger. “I just have this feeling that it’s not supposed to be my life anymore, that Tannier Isa wants me to do something different, but I’m just not sure what.”

Big Bunco felt like she’d just been knocked in the head with an oversized tree trunk. Thimblerig the groundhog, going straight? Was that even possible? She wanted to laugh, to tell him that animals like them couldn’t just change, no more than a zebra making the switch from stripes to spots.

But she couldn’t, because as much as she might deny it, she’d felt it in herself.

She didn’t know if any of them had really changed, or if it was just being trapped on a giant hollowed-out tree trunk in the middle of a world-destroying flood, but she had a strong urge to avoid the topic. She needed to get away.

“That’s great, ‘rig, really,” Big Bunco said, standing, trying to keep her voice from shaking. The ark pitched from the stern, nearly knocking her back down, but Thimblerig jumped up to steady her. “Will I ever get used to being on the water?” she laughed, feeling shaky in more ways than one.

“We won’t be here forever,” he answered. “The unicorn has a new life waiting for us on the other side of the storm. Trust me.”

For a moment, Big Bunco felt swept up in the fervency of Thimblerig’s words. Could it be true? She realized with a mixture of horror and amazement that she actually did trust him, and the truth of that trust gutted her. After all, the first rule of being a con was: trust no one.

“I’ll see you later, ‘rig,” she said, breaking from him and moving towards the opening of his pen. “Got to go help Soapy break out of his cage.”

“Hey, Bunco?” Thimblerig stopped her. “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say anything to the others. Not yet, at least.”

“Sure, ‘rig, whatever you say,” she replied. He smiled and gave her a quick wave, and then settled back down onto the hay.

She shook her head as she wandered away from the groundhog and back towards her friends. She had some thinking of her own to do.

Look for another excerpt in the coming weeks.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist will be released on May 1, 2015.

Want to read Thimblerig’s Ark before the sequel is released? Get your copy by clicking on the cover below!

Click book cover to go to Thimblerig's Amazon page

Nanowrimo • You Are The Hero Of This Story

This is a pep talk I wrote for the 2015 Nanowrimo Young Writer’s Program. It was originally published on the Young Writer’s Program website.
You’re staring at the blinking cursor on your screen, doubtful that you will make your daily word-count goal.

Again.

“Why did I ever decide to do this?” you mutter under your breath. “This month was destined to end in failure!”

The cursor keeps on blinking.

Mocking you.

It’s that sentence. The Worst Sentence Ever Written. The sentence you’ve been monkeying around with for the past hour. You need to change it, but taking the time to change won’t help you reach your goal, and you’re already far behind in your daily word-count.

Your story is going nowhere. The characters are all one dimensional caricatures. The plot’s a dud, and the themes are non-existent, and…

…why did you think you could ever write a novel in the first place?

You slam your laptop shut and cry out in misery, “The mountain’s too tall, the forces arrayed against me too strong, and all hope is lost!”

But wait.

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You’ve seen this before, somewhere…

frodosammtdoomFrodo and Sam, emotionally and physically spent, edging their way up the rocky slope of Mt. Doom, the top of the mountain visible but unreachable under the burden of the ring…

Harry Potter, trapped in the besieged halls of Hogwarts, surrounded by the dark forces of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, desperate to figure out the location of the final Horcrux…

Lucy and Susan, holding onto one another in the bitter pre-dawn coldness, crying over the dead body of the great lion, knowing that all of their hopes died with him…

And then, it hits you. This is your dark night of the soul.

NaNoWriMo is your hero’s journey, you are the hero, and this is your point of decision. Do you turn back in defeat, or do you press ahead?

But it’s not just that. You’re also the writer, which means that this is your story.

You control the valiant champions fighting for good and the shadowy forces of evil. One side will win or lose at your beck and call.

This is your story.

It doesn’t matter if it makes sense, if your dialogue is believable, or even if it is well-written. What matters is that you finish.

And Hero, you are almost there.

With that knowledge, you are free to re-open your laptop and write, because this is your story.

And you are the only one who can tell it.

Thimblerig's Ark Cover ArtNate’s novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, is available for a free Kindle download from November 19 until November 23 (PST) in celebration of NaNoWriMo. Go download and enjoy!

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist, is being written this month during NaNoWriMo, and will be published in Spring 2016.